David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.

A long-term BBC investigation has discovered new and shocking details about one of the biggest Ponzi schemes of all time. OneCoin, which fraudulently branded itself as a cryptocurrency, appears to have received significant support from high-ranking government leaders in both the United Arab Emirates and Bulgaria. Evidence suggests that included leaking details of an international police search to the fugitives who launched the scam.

Even among cryptocurrency veterans and scam watchers OneCoin is in some ways oddly forgotten. The crypto-inflected Ponzi scheme was launched way back in 2014 and was largely brought down by mid-2017. Founder Ruja Ignatova disappeared on Oct. 25, 2017, and has not been seen since. That means OneCoin had largely faded from the public eye before late 2017’s frenzy of crypto speculation.

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But OneCoin was in some bleak sense a pioneer, proving that promises of crypto riches were effective bait for naïve victims. Even though OneCoin never built an actual cryptocurrency, it managed to con people worldwide out of an estimated $4 billion. OneCoin was also the first big crypto scam to go global using multi-level marketing tactics – or more accurately, as a fraudulent pyramid scheme.

That makes OneCoin a precursor to the much better-known pyramid scheme BitConnect. BitConnect mimicked much of OneCoin’s approach but has a more prominent place in crypto lore because, frankly, the memes were better.

But Jamie Bartlett and an investigative team at the U.K.’s BBC have been paying very close attention to OneCoin. Starting in 2019, Bartlett and Co. released a podcast, “The Missing CryptoQueen,” chronicling their attempts to track down Ignatova. The series ran for just over a year, producing nine episodes of fascinating but ultimately inconclusive digging.

“The Missing CryptoQueen” uncovered strong evidence that OneCoin was more than just a massive pyramid scheme. Most strikingly, Bartlett and his team found many hints that Ignatova was tied to shadowy figures capable of real violence – quite possibly Eastern European organized crime.

The show seems to have nudged global law enforcement to take the case more seriously, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) adding Ignatova to its Most Wanted list in late June 2022. Bartlett even published a book earlier this year, seeming to put a cap on his team’s efforts – but Ignatova still hasn’t been found.

Then, after a more than two-year hiatus, Bartlett and company returned in late September with shocking new evidence. OneCoin wasn’t simply a mob scheme – it appears the scammers had government backing, from not one but two different governments.

First, Bartlett’s team received secret documents indicating that Ignatova worked with Sheikh Faisal bin Sultan Al Qassimi, a royal in the United Arab Emirates, to release funds that had been frozen over suspicion of money laundering. Ignatova also appears to have bought a $20 million villa in the UAE, which may be where she has been hiding out for half a decade now.

But the most shocking new discovery by Bartlett and his team is evidence that elements within the Bulgarian government were actively helping the OneCoin scammers stay one step ahead of international police.

These new revelations highlight a frightening consequence of the rise of huge global financial frauds in the digital age: Their ability to bring in huge amounts of money can easily attract the involvement of very powerful and dangerous figures, including both mobsters and corrupt government officials. In fact, Bitconnect may have taken this page from the OneCoin book, too: Though it got little play at the time in the West, Indian legislators accused the ruling BJP of complicity in that fraud.

Two new episodes of “The Missing CryptoQueen” are available now, and Bartlett and his team are promising at least one more coming soon.

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David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.

David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.